ST. PAUL -- For years, Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold pursued an outdoor hockey because of the visceral connection many Wild fans have with the grassroots part of the sport.
Legions of kids began playing the game on outdoor sheets all over Minnesota, whether it’s backyard rinks or frozen ponds and lakes.
Wild players Ryan Carter and Nate Prosser are no different. And when they take part in this weekend’s 2016 Coors Light Stadium Series game against the Chicago Blackhawks at TCF Bank Stadium, they will, quite literally, be getting back to their hockey roots.
“That’s when I fell in love with the game, was playing outside,” Carter said. “It’s a Minnesota game, it’s a cultural thing, the winters are long and that’s the way to make it fun.”
Carter and Prosser spent their formative years playing hockey outdoors. Sunday, it will come full circle.
“You get away from home, you get away from your parents, you pack up the bag lunch, they drop you off in the morning and you’re out there until dinner time,” Prosser said. “You’re out there with your best buddies with a tennis ball working on skills and messing around. That’s where you spent most of the time in the winters.”
Growing up in White Bear Lake, where Carter hails from, there are often only two things to do in the wintertime: Go ice fishing and play hockey.
Few towns in Minnesota have the kind of hockey tradition that White Bear Lake does, with 18 trips to the State High School Hockey Tournament, played 15 minutes down the road in St. Paul.
Perhaps the only thing in town that’s a bigger part of life than the lake is what is happening with the Bears.
“It is a hockey community. You walk around school and you’re the big man on campus if you play hockey,” said Carter. “It’s neat growing up in a town where hockey was the marquee sport. People rally around it, they know what it means, the crowds are big and into it.
“I still really love high school hockey because you have the band and you get that feeling that you don’t get a pro games.”
For Carter, his passion for hockey began in the neighborhood he grew up in, only a couple of minutes from where his wife, Erin, and his two daughters, Maggie and Natalie, currently reside.
“I was fortunate enough, I lived in a great neighborhood where some of the dads played hockey before and the backyards butted up against each other,” Carter said. “We put a rink out there, we had it dialed in with lights, chicken wire; it was neat. You just ran out the back door, skated all day and all night, came home, went to bed, and did it all again the next day.”
Prosser’s story is similar.
A native of Elk River, Prosser often chased his older brother, Luke, around the legendary Handke Pit, site of Hockey Day Minnesota two years ago.
If it wasn’t The Pit, it was “The Barn,” Elk River’s old arena prior to its current home, which was built almost two decades ago.
“A lot of times we’d choose right next to the rink, gather all the neighborhood kids, and set up the game,” Prosser said. “That’s where I remember playing most of my hockey.”
Both Carter and Prosser said this weekend’s Stadium Series game would be extra special because of its proximity to home. While they likely would have shared this experience with family regardless of it’s location, the prospect of it being a short drive from the places where they first fell in love with the game makes it all the more special.
“I definitely will have to soak it in. We’re getting out there a day or two before, skate with family, practice,” Prosser said. "That’s when I’ll really want to soak it in and realize that this is a special occasion, and not everybody gets to do this. A few guys have had the opportunity and they tell us how awesome this is.”
Carter has already played in one outdoor game as a member of the New Jersey Devils at Yankee Stadium in January of 2014.
“It’s an experience you’ll remember for a long time,” Carter said.
This time it will definitely be different.
“In New Jersey, I had some family that flew out there," Carter said. "It was neat but it’ll be a little more special for me having it here and the people I can share it with. A memory that maybe the kids can bring to show and tell someday, that’s what makes it special to me."